Past simple and progressive

We've looked so far at two forms of the present tense - present simple and present progressive. Now it's time to look at the same two forms of the past tense - past simple and past progressive.

Past simple form

Past simple - regular verbs

We form the past simple with the past tense form of the main verb. Some verbs are what we call regular verbs, and to make the past tense form we simply need to add "ed" to the base form:
  • played
  • worked
  • laughed
Some regular verbs already end in "e" and so we only need to add "d":
  • lived
  • hoped
  • located
Here are some examples of past simple statements with regular verbs:
We lived in Sydney for about 5 years.
The children played all weekend.
They laughed until it hurt.

Past simple - irregular verbs

When we looked at verb forms in part 2 we saw briefly that there are many irregular verbs in English. If a verb is irregular its past tense form (and/or past participle form) is made in an irregular way, and there are quite a few different ways in which it can be irregular, as you can see from these examples:

Base form Past tense form
become became
catch caught
do did
leave left
sing sang
tear tore
He caught the ball with his left hand.
The band sang 12 songs before they left the stage.
It became dark very quickly.

Past simple - "be"

When we looked at present simple and present progressive we saw that the verb "be" has three different present tense forms (am, are, is). In the past tense there are two different forms, "was" and "were":
First person singular I was
Second person singular you were
Third person singular he / she / it was
First person plural we were
Second person plural you were
Third person plural they were

Past simple - Questions

Let's try and change some of our statements from above into questions, as we did when we looked at present simple and present progressive. Remember that with yes/no questions and object questions we have to swap around the subject and the auxiliary verb. As we don't have an auxiliary verb we need to add one, and the one that we add is always "do". This time, though, we use it in its past tense form (did). Here are some yes/no questions first:
Did you live in Sydney?
Did he catch the ball with his left hand?
Did the children play all weekend?
As you can see the main verb (live, catch, play) has gone back to its base form each time (we don't say "Did you lived in Sydney?") This is because we've already indicated that the questions are in past simple by using the past tense form of the auxiliary verb, so we don't need to indicate it again.
Here are some possible object (and adverb) questions:
What did you do in Sydney?
Why did he catch the ball with his left hand?
Where did the children play all weekend?
Subject questions, as we know, keep the same word order as the statement:
Who lived in Sydney?
Who caught the ball with his left hand?
Who played all weekend?

Past simple - Negatives

We make negative sentences with the auxiliary verb (did) and "not":
We did not live in Sydney for about 5 years.
He did not catch the ball with his left hand.
The children did not play all weekend.
As with present simple and present progressive we can use contractions in informal spoken English:
We didn't live in Sydney for about 5 years.
He didn't catch the ball with his left hand.
The children didn't play all weekend.

Past simple meaning

When we looked at the present simple we said that it was, as its name suggests, the "simplest" form of the present tense, and so the meanings it gave us about the present were quite plain and simple. Well, the same is true of the past simple - it is the simplest form of the past tense and the meanings it gives us about the past are fairly plain and simple too.

Past simple - Completed events in the past

We use past simple to describe single actions (or occurrences or states) which started and finished before the time of speaking. Sometimes we specifically mention the time when the action was completed with an adverb or adverbial phrase like "yesterday" or "two weeks ago":
I went to Dubai last year.
They lived in Paris in 2006.
I finished the report two weeks ago.
Sometimes, though, the specific time of the action is implied and so we don't need to mention it. In the conversation below, when Jane mentions "breakfast" it is clear that she is talking about this morning.
John: Are you hungry?
Jane: Yes, I didn't have breakfast.
We can also talk about sequences of completed events, like this:
I got up at 6 o'clock, had a shower and went for a walk.
Goldilocks ate all the porridge, sat in all the chairs and slept in all the beds.
When we use adverbs and adverbial phrases like "last year", "in 2006" and "at 6 o'clock" we are specifying an exact time that an event happened in the past. Sometimes though, we want to emphasise that fact that the event lasted for some time - its duration. To do this we can use different adverbs and adverbial phrases, like "for five years", "all day" and "for a long time". Have a look at these sentences:
I talked with my mother on the phone last night.
I talked with my mother on the phone for 2 hours.
In both sentences the events are completed - they started and finished before the time of speaking. In the first sentence we are specifying the exact time when the event happened. In the second sentence though we are emphasising how long the event lasted. Here's another example:
I went to the beach yesterday.
I stayed on the beach all day.
Again, in the first sentence we state when the event happened, and in the second sentence we emphasise how long it lasted.

Past simple - Repeated or regular events in the past

When we looked at present simple we saw that we could use it with adverbs of frequency to talk about repeated or regular actions. We can do exactly the same with the past simple, but this time the regular or repeated actions are no longer happening - they are finished in the past. As well as using adverbs of frequency we often use expressions like "a lot" and "all the time". Here are some examples:
I played tennis a lot when I was younger.
When I was at school I did two hours of homework every day.

Past progressive form

We've seen how we use past simple to talk about both completed and regular or repeated events in the past. To view the past in different ways though we need some other forms of the past tense. The second of these forms is the past progressive. If you think back to when we looked at the present progressive, you may already have an idea of what meanings the past progressive gives us. Before we get to this though, let's look at how we make it - its form.
We form the past progressive with the past tense forms of the auxiliary verb "be" and the present participle form of the main verb. Let's remind ourselves of the past tense forms of "be":
First person singular I was
Second person singular you were
Third person singular he / she / it was
First person plural we were
Second person plural you were
Third person plural they were
Remember that to form the present participle we normally just add "ing" to the base form of the verb. There are some exceptions though - here they are again:
Verb Rule Example
Most verbs ending with consonant + "e" take off the "e" hoping; taking
Most verbs ending in consonant + vowel + consonant double the last consonant batting; referring; swimming
Verbs ending in consonant + vowel + consonant where the last consonant is "w", "x" or "y" don't double the last consonant blowing; flexing
Verbs ending in "ie" change the "ie" to "y" dying; lying
Verbs ending in "c" add "k" panicking
Now that we know which form of the auxiliary verb "be" to use and we've reminded ourselves how to form the present participle, we're ready to see some examples of past progressive sentences:
I was sitting at my desk.
They were playing with the dog.
The computer was making a loud noise.

Past progressive - Questions

As we've done with all of the verb forms we've looked at so far, let's try and change our statements above into questions. Remember that with yes/no questions and object questions we have to invert the subject and the auxiliary verb. We already have an auxiliary verb (was/were) so we don't need to add one.
Was I sitting at my desk?
Were they playing with the dog?
What were you doing at your desk?
How long were they playing with the dog?
With subject questions the word order stays the same, and just like with present progressive, the form of the auxiliary verb is always in the third person singular (was) because we don't know whether the subject in the answer will be in the first, second or third person.
Who was sitting at my desk?
What was making a loud noise?

Past progressive - Negatives

We make negative sentences with the auxiliary verb "be" (was/were) and "not".
I was not sitting at my desk. (or wasn't)
They were not playing with the dog. (or weren't)
The computer was not making a loud noise. (or wasn't)

Past progressive meaning

When we looked at present progressive we saw that the name gave us a fairly accurate clue about its meaning. The same is true of the past progressive. Once again the word "progressive" suggests that something is in progress, this time in the past. Let's have a look.

Past progressive - Events in progress at a particular time in the past

Have a look at this sentence:
At 7 o'clock last night John was having dinner.
What can we say about the time that this action of "having dinner" started and finished? Well, let's imagine that you phoned John at exactly 7 o'clock last night. He would have been in the process of having dinner. This means that his dinner started at some time before 7 o'clock (perhaps 6.30, perhaps 6.58), was still in progress at 7o'clock and therefore finished at some point after 7 o'clock.
Here's another example:
This time yesterday I was lying on a beach.
If you had been flying over the beach at exactly this time yesterday, you would have seen me lying there. This action was in progress at that specific time. Once again, it started at some point before (maybe an hour before, maybe 10 minutes before) and was not yet finished.
Now, if we compare these with sentences in the past simple, let's see what happens:
At 7 o'clock last night I had dinner.
This time yesterday I lay on a beach.
What can we say now about the time these actions started and finished? Well, now the actions started at exactly 7 o'clock, or exactly this time yesterday - they weren't already in progress at that time.

Past progressive - An action in progress interrupted by a shorter action in the past

Let's have a look now at a sentence with two actions - one using past progressive and the other using past simple.
The phone rang while I was eating dinner.
What's happening here? Well, first we have an action in progress in the past (eating dinner). At some point in the middle of eating dinner the phone rang, interrupting the action of eating dinner. We use past progressive for the relatively longer action that was in progress, and past simple for the relatively shorter action which interrupts it. Now, we know that the action of eating dinner started at some point before the phone rang, but we don't know whether or not it stopped at the moment the phone rang. It is possible that I stopped my dinner to answer the phone, or maybe I ignored it and carried on eating.
Here's another example of one action interrupting another:
He was walking home when he heard a loud scream.
The same thing happens here - the relatively short action of hearing a loud scream interrupts the longer action of walking home. Once again we know that "walking home" started at some point before the scream, but we don't know if he continued walking home afterwards.
You'll notice that we've used "while" in one of these sentences and "when" in the other. We normally use "while" (or "as") in the past progressive clause and "when" in the past simple clause.

Past progressive - Two events in progress at the same time in the past

Sometimes one event doesn't interrupt another, but instead happens in parallel to it. Have a look at this example:
I was reading a book while my wife was watching a movie.
Here the two actions started at more or less the same time, were both in progress for some time, and then finished, again at more or less the same time. We can use "while" or "as" here just like before, but we could also use a coordinating conjunction like "and" or "but":
I was reading a book but my wife was watching a movie.

Past progressive - Repeated events in the past

We can use past progressive with words like "always" and "forever" to talk about things that happened repeatedly. We might have been irritated by this repeated action or we might remember it fondly:

He was always biting his nails! (irritation)
Grandpa was always telling us amazing stories about his life!
(fond memory)

Past progressive - Setting the scene in a story

We commonly use past progressive to set the scene in a story, followed by past simple for the main events in the story:

Batman was enjoying a relaxing day at home. It was raining hard and the wind was howling. Suddenly, he saw the bat signal in the sky and Robin ran into the room.

Past progressive and stative verbs

If you think back to when we looked at present progressive, you'll remember that we said we don't normally use it with stative verbs. The same is true with past progressive. Let's try the same sentences we used then:
Anna was knowing Jim well.
I was liking cake.
Once again there is no action involved with these verbs. Anna either knew Jim or she didn't, and I either liked cake or I didn't.
We still have one more form of the present and past tenses to look at - the present perfect and past perfect. Before we do this though, we're going to look at two other ways we use to talk about the past: used to and would.

Used to

When we looked at past simple we saw that we can use it to talk about repeated or regular events in the past. Here's an example to remind us:
I played tennis a lot when I was younger.
We could express this same meaning in another way. Have a look at this sentence:
I used to play tennis a lot when I was younger.
What we've done is use the expression "used to" followed by the base form of the verb to talk about a habitual or repeated action in the past that is now finished. In fact, we could take off everything following the verb and still know that the action was repeated and that we don't do it anymore. So if we just say:
I used to play tennis.
...we understand that I played tennis regularly in the past and that I don't play it anymore. Let's see what happens though if we try to do the same thing with the original past simple sentence:
I played tennis.
What we're left with is a simple completed action with no additional information about whether or not I did it regularly or whether or not I still do it now. So "used to"gives us a way of talking about a repeated action in the past which doesn't happen anymore, without having to add extra information like "a lot when I was younger". Here are some more examples:
I used to have a dog.
I used to play football every weekend but I don't have time now.
I never used to like spinach but now I eat it every day.

Used to - Questions and negatives

We form yes/no and object questions with the auxiliary verb "did", and the spelling of "used to" changes to "use to". With subject questions the spelling stays the same:
Did you use to go swimming when you were at school?
Which sports did you use to play?
Who used to live here? (subject question - spelling stays the same)
The spelling also changes for the negative:
I didn't use to like action films, but I love them now.

Would

We can use "would" in a similar way to "used to" but with a couple of important differences. First, have a look at these sentences:
When I was young I used to go camping with my father every summer.
When I was young I would go camping with my father every summer.
Both these sentences sound okay. So far so good - it looks like we can use "used to" and "would" interchangeably. But have a look now at these two sentences:
She used to have a house in the country.
She would have a house in the country.
The first sentence looks okay but the second one doesn't. So what's the difference between these sentences and the first two? Well, the difference lies in the type of verb."Go" is a dynamic verb and "have" is stative. Using "would" in this way with stative verbs doesn't work.
The other important difference is that "would" is much less common in spoken English than "used to". It is more often used in written English, and/or to reminisce sentimentally about the past.

Recap

Here's a summary of the main points we learnt in this unit.

  • We form the past simple with the past tense form of the verb. Some verbs are regular and we add"ed" to the base form. Other verbs are irregular. The verb "be" has two past tense forms, "was" and "were".

    They watched the rugby match on TV. (regular)
    He was a lawyer before he became a TV personality. ("be"; irregular)
    The class sat still while they listened to the story. (irregular; regular)
  • In past simple questions and negatives the verb returns to the base form.

    We didn't like the dessert.
    What did you think of the film?
  • We use past simple to talk about completed events in the past, and repeated or regular events in the past.

    I had dinner earlier. (completed event)
    Tom didn't stay at the party for very long. (completed event)

    Lucy always studied hard when she was at university. (repeated event)
  • We form the past progressive with the past tense forms of the auxiliary verb "be" and the present participle form of the main verb.

    This time yesterday I was sleeping.
    The fridge wasn't working. We had to get a new one.
    Why weren't you talking to me yesterday?
  • We use past progressive to talk about events in progress at a particular time in the past, actions in progress interrupted by a shorter action in the past and two events in progress at the same time in the past.

    At 9 o'clock this morning I was sitting in my first meeting of the day. (event in progress at a particular time)
    The postman arrived while they were having breakfast. (action in progress interrupted by a shorter action)
    While you were sunning yourself on the beach I was working hard. (two events in progress at the same time
  • We also use past progressive to talk about repeated events in the past and to set the scene in a story.

    Old Jack was forever reminiscing about his time at sea. (repeated event in the past)
    The street was bustling with people. Everyone was doing their Christmas shopping. Suddenly... (setting the scene)
  • We don't normally use stative verbs in the past progressive form. Verbs that have both a dynamic and stative meaning can be used with present progressive.

    I'm sorry! I wasn't understanding what you meant. (stative - incorrect)
    I was thinking about changing jobs. (dynamic - correct)
  • We use used to or would with the base form of the verb to talk about a habitual or repeated action in the past that we don't do anymore. We can't use "would" in this way with stative verbs.

    We used to come to this lake every summer.
    When they lived in France they would go on holiday to Provence.

There are downloadable factsheets for past simple, past progressive and used to below.

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